A self-confessed bookworm with a vivid imagination, Vanessa Hatley-Owen is delighted to have her second children’s picture book, Farewell Anahera, published and make the list of finalists for 2023 NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. She chats with HELEN PERRY about her journey.
If, as a child, Vanessa Hatley-Owen “always had her nose in and book and was happiest reading,” the status quo hasn’t changed. However, as an adult and school librarian she says she is even happier opening up the world of books to young people.
In fact, Botany Downs Primary School pupils are already familiar with Vanessa’s first published picture book, When Dad Came Home, with its ‘return from war’ theme, a popular read when ANZAC Day comes around.
Inspired by well-known children’s authors such as Joy Cowley, Margaret Mahy, Sheryl Jordan and more, nevertheless inspiration for Farewell Anahera, (featuring text in English and Maori), came mostly from a family trip to the northern tip of New Zealand.
“Maori hold the belief that on passing, the spirits of the dead travel to the headland of Te Rerenga Wairua [Cape Reinga] where they descend into the underworld or return to their ancestral home, Hawaiki,” Vanessa explains.
“Standing at the cape, I felt a connection to that belief. In my story about Anahera’s departing spirit, and its subsequent journey, I wanted to convey the goodbye to family and the land.”
Although this, and her earlier picture book, are her first of this genre to be published, the Cockle Bay local is not new to writing – manuscripts abound in her home and she has long written text for a range of education journals, school readers, newsletters and more.
Perhaps that’s why writing Farewell Anahera came easily. “I wrote the draft over a weekend then spent a few weeks refining it,” she says. “On the other hand, finding a publisher is seldom as quick!
“It can take time to find the right home but along the way good feedback is welcome and helpful. Best of all, there is a market for children’s books; kids still love to read and to have books around them.”
Reflecting on her career path, Vanessa says writing for children has been a “natural fit with her role as a school librarian. On occasion, when I read my own work to students, they ask good questions and give excellent feedback.”
But there are times when writing and Vanessa’s day job conflict. “I’m definitely a night owl. I’m not one of those writers who can leap up early and tap out 2000 words before heading to work.
“When writing, I’m more of a mid-afternoon person; when the morning activities are done, I’m in the mood to write. Not always conducive with school hours,” she says with a smile.
But that hasn’t stopped Vanessa’s creative flow. She has completed three junior fiction novels which she hopes to have published. Two have been short-listed for the Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon Award, awarded annually to the author of a children’s fiction manuscript for youngsters aged between 8 and 12 years.
Presently plotting a new junior fiction title, with more ideas in the pipeline, she recalls her early dialogue as, “tending to be a bit formal – a product of my childhood reading! However. I quickly learned that kids don’t talk like that. On the other hand, language is influenced by the characters in a book.
“In my latest junior fiction title, one of the characters is quite cheeky and his personality is reflected in what he says and the way he says it.
“Then there’s my next picture book which is a lot of fun for little ones. It’s due for release early next year.”
With no intention of giving up her day job to concentrate solely on writing, Vanessa says the two roles are well balanced.
“Some might think I write to make money. The answer to that is, “no”, I doubt that writing children’s books will make me rich,” she laughs.
But, does one write to get published? “Well, you have to be aware that it may never happen. I write just for the joy of writing and hope my stories will keep putting books in children’s hands.
“I know, when I was in Year 5, about nine years old, it was a teacher who read to my class, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe [from the Narnia series] which made me fall in love with the book and with reading.
“Later, I read to my own children [now 18, 21 and 23] and that generated their love of reading; I hope other parents do the same. In particular, I encourage children to read New Zealand authors; they really are among the best.”